Time to rethink India policy

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE floods have left a trail of misery the effects of which will be felt for a long time to come. What is surprising, however, is that the floods have not had an impact on our foreign policy. Even in this hour of crisis nothing has changed in Islamabad’s perception of our friends and foes. India continues to hold the position of Enemy Number One.

To the satisfaction of our policymakers, conspiracy theorists on the electronic media have squarely blamed ‘arch enemy’ India for the floods. Hadn’t India opened the floodgates of its dams to release waters into our rivers to drown us? So we are told.

Blinded by their pathological hatred of India they failed to look up the map. The rivers that caused the greatest suffering do not have their source in Indian territory. Suffering from a deficit of common sense we allowed the warmongers to whip up frenzy against the ‘enemies’ lurking in our neighbourhood.

The government has done no better. It first sent out an international appeal for aid. Sixty-three countries/agencies responded. When India offered $5m for flood relief, Islamabad snubbed New Delhi asking it to donate the amount “to the UN flood response appeal”. There were insinuations that this amount was paltry. But the official websites show that India’s aid offer exceeds what has been provided by 35 donors, many of them touted as our friends.

What does all this imply? It means Islamabad is convinced that its policy on India cannot change. Our domestic policies, economy and our positioning in global politics have to be adjusted to this India-centric thinking.

But if Pakistan is to survive there has to be some rethinking of our India policy. Concurrently, global equations are in a state of flux. The new equation that is emerging calls for a response from us — possibly a proactive move. Our being winners or losers will depend on this.

The Obama administration has ended its combat operation in Iraq. Afghanistan is next in line. Even though this does not imply the end of the American presence in the region, it will be a shift from direct military involvement to a policy of installing proxies in the region. Afghanistan, India, China and Iran have already begun to explore new options. They would not wish to play a proxy’s role.

The first indication of this came in July when New Delhi hinted that it had reopened negotiations with Tehran for the revival of the IPI gas pipeline. Although it was initially to be a party to this energy project, India had backed out under American pressure. Not certain about Pakistan’s cooperation — this has always been a question mark in the changing fortunes of this project — the Indian government has also entered into a dialogue on the construction of an underwater pipeline linking Iran and India.

There is also the recent news of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan signing an agreement on TAPI, another pipeline project that will link these two countries with Pakistan and India. China has also shown interest in these projects given its growing need for energy.

The US has kept a watchful eye on these moves. Its interest in the oil and gas reserves of the Middle East and Central Asia is no secret. Much will depend on how Pakistan plays its cards. It will be tempted to keep India out of these deals that may scuttle them and make it vulnerable to American pressure.

The unconditional support of its all-weather friend China can no longer be taken for granted. Beijing is now a world actor in global politics and it would not jeopardise its own interests for Pakistan’s whimsical geopolitical strategy of playing “both ally and enemy” to the US with regard to the Taliban.

With Afghanistan President Karzai now positioning himself to hold a dialogue with the Taliban, Islamabad will find itself isolated. It is Pakistan’s ill-judged quest for strategic depth — considered essential to wage a successful war against India — that is driving us to such illogical ends. This has also jeopardised the negotiating process that is so essential for the two countries to keep each other engaged. The official talks that reopened some time ago are lackadaisical and unsteady.

The silver lining in the cloud is the new Track 2 dialogue that was launched in Thailand recently by the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. It acquired a new dimension in its fifth round when the newly-founded Jinnah Institute in Pakistan headed by Sherry Rehman, former minister of information, also became involved.

This institute seeks to advance the cause of national and human security discourse with an emphasis on regional peace. Delegations comprising senior former officials from the Foreign Office, armed forces, the intelligence agencies and political leaders on both sides issued a consensus document earlier this month.

This focuses on the need for a sustained dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad and suggests that Kashmiri leaders should also be included. It is important for the two neighbours not to break off the lines of communication each time there is tension between them. Only thus can disputes be resolved.

The other recommendations pertaining to non-interference in each other’s affairs, prosecution of terrorists, adopting confidence-buildng measures, the need for back-channel talks on Kashmir, etc., indicate a positive approach. The most significant has been the recognition of civil society’s potential role in promoting friendly relations between India and Pakistan. This should encourage civil society to become more involved in foreign policy issues. Secondly its efforts should produce pressure on their respective governments to reach a consensus.

That this is possible has been proved by the release of 442 Indian fishermen from Pakistani jails, courtesy the petitions filed in the Supreme Court by two civil society organisations. Although human lives are involved, the tit-for-tat arrest of fishermen who inadvertently cross unmarked maritime boundaries has been taking place for decades. A sustained dialogue between the two countries can stop it.